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How to make the perfect madeleines

WT24 Desk

It’s impossible to write about this little French classic without reference to its No 1 fan, but really, for all the “exquisite pleasure” the madeleine brought him, Marcel Proust didn’t do a terribly good job of selling its simple charms,Theguardian reports.

Expansive on the plain appearance of these “squat plump little cakes … which look as though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell”, he nevertheless neglects the madeleine’s chief selling points: its sublime buttery flavour and light, fluffy texture. He’d never have made a Bake Off judge, that’s for sure.

The pre-Proustian origins of the madeleine are a mystery. Some credit them to Talleyrand’s personal chef, others to a peasant woman named Madeleine whose baking attracted the attention and championing of the Duke of Lorraine, Stanisław Leszczyński. Wherever they came from originally, I know where they’re going – straight into my cup of tea. (Serving suggestion courtesy of Marcel Proust.)

Raising agent

The most significant difference in the recipes I dig up is the raising agent responsible for the madeleine’s characteristic fluffy texture. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, they would traditionally have been leavened with beaten egg whites, as in the recipe Geraldene Holt includes in her classic book of Cakes, which is taken from Louis-Eustache Audot’s 1858 La cuisinière de la campagne et de la ville. More modern instructions rely on baking powder, which, though no doubt frowned upon by purists, helps to give the madeleines their distinctive bulbous profile: like a camel, they stand or fall on their humps – Dorie Greenspan calls la bosse – the bump – “the holy grail of madeleine bakers”.

Audot’s madeleines are indeed wonderfully light, but though not exactly dry, they are definitely tougher than the others I make, and keep less well, too (not that any of them last particularly well; like so many of the most exquisite pleasures, this is a fleeting one).

Butter

This lighter, drier texture may also have something to do with the amount of butter Audot uses: just half the weight of the flour, while Sebastien Rouxel – author of Bouchon Bakery and former executive pastry chef of the Thomas Keller restaurant group; Justin Gellatly – of Bread Ahead and author of Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding; and Michel Roux – whose recipe appears in Claire Clark’s Indulge – all use the same amount of both.

Clearly, there is a trade off between flavour and texture – madeleines can either be delicate in both respects, or rich, soft and moist. Those attracted by the first and possibly older variety will be well served by Audot’s recipe, but I happen to think the latter goes better with a cup of tea.

That said, the traditional madeleines of Commercy, where Leszczyński’s peasant is said to have resided, are made with beurre noisette, butter that has been browned to give it a nutty flavour. Only the recipe in Roger Pizey’s World’s Best Cakes suggests this step, but I love the extra dimension it lends to what is otherwise a fairly simple, if distinctively shaped, little sponge. (He also adds milk to his batter, resulting in a damp, almost crumpet-like texture that I’m rather less keen on.)

Sweetener

Audot and Pizey both use straight caster sugar, while Roux and Rouxel mix theirs with dark brown sugar and Gellatly goes for a mixture of caster and demerara, which I think works best with the toasty flavour of the butter – toffee-like, but without a hint of bitterness.

Roux, Gellatly and Rouxel also all use honey, I suspect as much for the moisture it gives as its lovely flavour. Though not strictly traditional, it is common enough to allow me to include without worrying I’ll never be able to holiday in France again, and it certainly helps keep the cakes nice and soft.

Flour

Audot calls for fine cake flour, but the plain variety, thoroughly sifted, does the job just as well.

Flavouring?

Citrussy additions are common in madeleine recipes. Audot uses orange blossom water and lemon zest, and Pizey uses orange zest, too. I particularly like the flavour of the first with honey, but the zests are also rather lovely – better, in my opinion, and certainly more distinctive than Roux’s vanilla extract, which makes his madeleines taste rather generically of “sponge”.

Roux and Rouxel are the only ones to specify the addition of a little salt – and, as ever, a pinch makes all the difference.

Resting, preparing the tin and piping

Rouxel and Gellatly both rest their batters before baking, overnight or for a minimum of 4 hours. Roux goes for a more moderate 30 minutes, while Audot and Pizey bake theirs immediately. The idea of resting is to hydrate the flour, which thickens the batter, and is supposed to give the cakes their characteristic little bump – though I must say, Pizey’s boast a rather impressive shape without it. A tip-off from Greenspan, following conversations with two Parisian pastry chefs, makes more of a difference: not only does she rest and chill the batter before piping it into the moulds, but she chills it in the tin, too, and then slides this on to a hot baking sheet.

Pizey notes that “the secret to baking the best madeleines is not only a hot oven, but also well-buttered and floured moulds”, and he’s right; the best-tasting madeleines in the world are as naught if you can’t get them out of the tin. Chilling the buttered and floured moulds before use, as he and Rouxel suggest, proves helpful in this regard – I don’t have a non-stick tin, but others claim they make life easier, though they may also cause your madeleines to brown unevenly.

You can pipe the batter into the tin, as Roux and Pizey suggest, but it’s easier to spoon it. More importantly, don’t overfill the moulds, as I did a couple of times, or you’ll end up with misshapen monsters too shameful to share with others – the mixture will spread during cooking, so, as Roux notes, “there is no need for it to touch the sides of the mould”.

Oven temperature

As the quote above suggests, Pizey, like Roux, is a fan of a hot oven for his madeleines – 220C, in fact, but I find they brown too quickly in mine. A more moderate 180C – as suggested by Gellatly, Audot and Rouxel – seems safer, and still allows the little cake to develop the deliciously crisp frill around the edges that is so often missing from the shop-bought variety. In fact, it’ll disappear within mere minutes (OK, perhaps hours) of coming out of the oven, which is all the more reason to bake your own, and then eat them all immediately. After all, exquisite pleasure waits for no man.

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